Putting South African Chardonnay in a Global Context

Chardonnay. A grape both worshipped and reviled. It is the magical stuff of Montrachet, making $18,000 bottles of the most coveted white wines around, yet also responsible for the $6 bottles of movie-theater butter and tinned pineapple that have some people crying “Anything But Chardonnay!”

In my opinion, great Chardonnay can be epic, mind-blowing stuff, with a serious deliciousness quotient. Decent Chardonnay on the other hand can be pleasant but uninspiring stuff. And bad Chardonnay? Well, it’s positively awful. I’ll take bad Pinot or bad Merlot over bad Chardonnay any day of the week.

Chardonnay is the second-most planted white grape on the planet (after the rather obscure and unremarkable Airén), but certainly, the most widely embraced on a global scale. It’s pretty hard to name a major wine-producing country worldwide that doesn’t produce Chardonnay.

You could call it versatility, you could call it mutability, you could call it plasticity—the fact of the matter is that Chardonnay can be grown in many places, and made into many different types of wines. Put bluntly? It’s pretty damn easy to grow, at least compared to many other top grape varieties.

I’ve heard more than one producer refer to Chardonnay as ‘the winemaker’s grape.’ Whereas varieties such as Pinot Noir or Riesling are often thought of as primarily communicating place, some suggest that Chardonnay wines might more often demonstrate specificity of intent than place.

That’s not to say there aren’t positively brilliant expressions of terroir in Chardonnay. Chablis fanatics can come to blows arguing for the transparency of the grape when it comes to expressing specific sites, and few can argue with the utter site-distinctiveness of the Côte de Beaune’s most renowned wines.

Outside of these hallowed terroirs, however, Chardonnay’s reputation remains far less established, its link to specific sites far less universally accepted. Consequently, producers everywhere from California to Australia sometimes find it challenging to place their wines in context, whether that be style, quality level, or inevitably, price.

All of which is how I ended up sitting down to three flights of world-class Chardonnay on my recent press trip to South Africa. Hosted at the beautiful stone-and-glass Kliphuis, owned by Capensis Wines (with the stunning view shown above), the purpose of this little gathering was to take a look at some of South Africa’s best Chardonnays alongside some reference bottles from regions around the world.

As I sat down to taste (with great anticipation and excitement) I found myself having a small moment of deja-vu. Nine years ago I participated in pretty much exactly the same exercise in New Zealand. It was an eye-opening exercise.

A Relatively Short History

South Africa has been growing Chardonnay only since the early 1980s. The oldest Chardonnay vineyard in the country dates to 1981, and was almost certainly the result of smuggled cuttings from Burgundy and Switzerland, as were several of the other early installations of the grape.

Some older bottlings of South African Chardonnay

Early Chardonnay pioneers included Hamilton Russell and De Wetshof, but the last few decades have seen a significant proliferation of plantings. South Africa now has 21,000 acres of Chardonnay in the ground, making up 15% of the country’s total vineyard acreage, farmed and vinified by hundreds of different producers. With some notable exceptions, Chardonnay seems to be concentrated in the cooler sub-regions of South Africa, the epicenter of which is Robertson, a small zone smack-dab in the center of the Western Cape.

A Brilliant Tasting

Our hosts for this tasting were three luminary producers of South African Chardonnay: Hamilton Russel, one of the grape’s pioneers and one of the most acclaimed producers in South Africa, Richard Kershaw, a master of wine who decided in 2012 to make Chardonnay (and…

Source : https://www.vinography.com/2022/11/putting-south-african-chardonnay-in-a-global-context

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